SEOUL - The United States is playing down talk of a breakthrough with Pyongyang after former U.S. President Bill Clinton flew to North Korea this week to win the release of two jailed American journalists.
Their release follows months of tension with North Korea, which has alarmed the region with a nuclear test, ballistic missile launches and threats to attack South Korea, raising concerns it could plunge the economies of North Asia into turmoil.
Here are scenarios about what may come next with North Korea:
A MORE DIPLOMATIC NORTH KOREA, BRIEFLY
North Korea has used military threats for years to squeeze concessions out of regional powers and it is not likely to alter its time-tested strategy over the long run. It may try diplomacy in the next few months to seek rewards that could benefit its broken economy, which has been hit by U.N. sanctions imposed for its May 25 nuclear test and long-range missile launch earlier this year.
Most analysts do not see North Korea ever giving up its nuclear arms program, which is the state's biggest card and prime symbol of leader Kim Jong-il's military-first strategy.
NUCLEAR TALKS STAY ON HOLD
Clinton's visit to North Korea could reduce the chill in ties between Pyongyang and Washington. But few analysts expect it will be enough to revive six-way talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States to end the North's nuclear weapons program in exchange for aid and better diplomatic standing.
North Korea has said it sees the often-stalled talks as dead in their current form and may be signaling it wants to deal directly with the United States by sending its top nuclear envoy Kim Kye-gwan to meet Clinton at the airport. However, the other six-party countries would likely take umbrage at being excluded.
DYNASTIC SUCCESSION FIRMLY ESTABLISHED
South Korean government officials said the North's recent saber rattling was aimed at firming up internal support for leader Kim, 67, as he prepares for succession in Asia's only communist dynasty and battles back from a suspected stroke.
The Clinton visit will be used by the North's propaganda machine as proof its recent military moves were a stunning victory for Kim that resulted in the former U.S. president coming to Pyongyang to pay tribute and negotiate.
With Kim feeling his footing is firmer with the country's powerful military and ruling communist Workers Party, he may make his intentions clearer about his successor, widely believed to be his youngest son Jong-un, thought to be only 25. Kim, who was groomed for years to take over the state, has yet to formally introduce his heir to a North Korean public largely unaware of any details about his offspring and needs to win the support of senior cadres for the continuation of his family's dynastic rule.
NEW DIRECTION FOR THE NORTH'S ATOMIC AMBITIONS
North Korea has not yet shown signs of restarting its aging reactor or nuclear fuel fabrication facility at its Yongbyon nuclear plant, a Soviet-era plant that produces bomb-grade plutonium and was being taken apart under a six-party deal.
North Korea has said it was starting to enrich uranium, which could give the impoverished and isolated country with ample supplies of natural uranium a second path for making atomic weapons. North Korea is thought to have produced enough plutonium for six to eight nuclear weapons and may find it too expensive to restart all of Yongbyon and instead opt for uranium enrichment, which can be done out of the view of U.S. spy satellites.
(Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Dean Yates)